Restaurant Talk: The Dynamic Duo Behind a San Francisco Classic

Boulevard's pioneering chef Nancy Oakes and wine director John Lancaster talk "bending" dishes to match wines and the secret to keeping a restaurant fresh while staying golden
Restaurant Talk: The Dynamic Duo Behind a San Francisco Classic
"We have people who are on their 23rd anniversary, and their first date was at Boulevard," says chef Nancy Oakes (pictured with John Lancaster). (Courtesy of Boulevard)
Jan 11, 2019

Nancy Oakes and John Lancaster sometimes finish each other’s sentences, they've worked side by side so long. The rare level of synergy between chef and wine director they've attained over two decades has helped keep Boulevard at the top of San Francisco’s dining scene.

Oakes grew up in Northern California and worked in several San Francisco kitchens before establishing her own place, L’Avenue, in 1988. That restaurant closed in 1993, but Oakes opened Boulevard the same year with business partner Pat Kuleto; the restaurant in the waterfront Embarcadero district quickly became a fine-dining go-to, and a quarter-century later reigns as a modern classic with its impeccable setting and finely tuned wine program. Oakes later opened another Best of Award of Excellence winner in San Francisco, Prospect.

Lancaster has been the wine director at Boulevard since 1996 and has elevated the wine program to keep pace with Oakes' cuisine over the years. Today, Boulevard offers 825 selections, with an emphasis on regions such as California, Burgundy and the Rhône, and keeps a rotation of 30-plus wines by the glass.

The time-tested team spoke with assistant editor Julie Harans about tasting life-changing Château d'Yquem, "bending" dish preparations to pair with wine, and how to balance meeting expectations without getting "bored."

Wine Spectator: What initially sparked your interest in wine?
Nancy Oakes: I think it was traveling. In the early ‘80s I went to France, and it’s just naturally how it occurs there, and I think I loved it. Wine hadn’t really been a part of my past because my parents were not particularly wine drinkers; in fact, I wasn’t much of a drinker at all. So the first golden moment—I wish I could remember the name of the restaurant—but it’s where I had a tasting of all different goose preparations paired with Château d'Yquem. I don’t think I’ve ever been the same since that. That changed me forever.

WS: How do you work together to create wine pairings that complement the cuisine, and vice versa?
NO: I tend to like wine-friendly food, because if I sit down for a special occasion, I’m thinking wine, and I’m thinking the wines I love to drink. So I think it’s just very enmeshed, it’s synchronized. When people ask me to do a course and a dinner that has fabulous wines, and the wine is really the big focal point of that dinner, I put the wine first. It is easier for me to bend the food. You can’t bend the wine; it’s in the bottle.
John Lancaster: And I think that kind of thing just comes naturally to Nancy. We’ve written so many menus together that it’s just nature for Nancy, the way she can work a dish to fit the wine. We endlessly change and evolve, so that makes it fun for us and it makes it interesting. I always wonder when I go back to a restaurant 10 years later and all the dishes are the same. I think, “God, how are you not bored with that?”

WS: What does that collaboration look like on a day-to-day basis?
JL: We do tastings together, and we’ve worked together so long that I think we finish each other’s sentences at times. It’s kind of a natural thing, and certainly I do have a lot of conversations with the kitchen on new dishes and things. We work five days a week together, so we’re around each other quite a bit … Every time there’s a new dish on the menu, Nancy makes it for lineup, and we all try it and talk about it.
NO: I tried to say we’ve worked together for 18 years the other weekend and John corrected me—it’s more like 20 years. He’s my first go-to when I set off to do something paired with a wine. I come to him and I say, “This is what I’m thinking,” and he’ll either go, “Yes, yes, yes,” or “Oh, no, that’s not going to work.” He’s a great resource for me. I think mostly because my training is French and Italian, it makes it automatically wine-friendly. But some of the younger people, like my chef de cuisine, [are] very strong in Asian ingredients, and I think that’s more of a challenge, wine-wise.

WS: How has Boulevard evolved since opening?
NO: Some of the basic proteins we’ve always had on the menu, but if the basic menu item—like the pork chop—is the little black dress, what I really love are the accessories. So that’s what’s always evolving. But what’s interesting is that now, for children of our original customers, this is their special-occasion place, and they bring their children. This restaurant has such a stated look that it feels familiar and there’s a touchstone, but actually it has been changing beneath their feet, and they’ve changed also.

There’s so much food media that everyone’s exposed to, they’re expecting to see those new ingredients and new styles. But yet, the way the restaurant feels and looks is the same, which I think sets a tradition, which is hard to find now—a tradition.

WS: And how has the wine list evolved?
JL: Well, just in more depth and scope ... Way back in the day it was a lot smaller, a lot less inventory, a lot more California-driven, and now we’ve got a little bit of everything from everywhere. I look at what we did 15 or 20 years ago compared to what we do now and I go, “Wow.”

WS: What’s the secret to Boulevard’s longevity?
NO: At the end of the day, it’s about hospitality. Recognition of your guests, quality of service and quality of the product, and knowing the people in your dining room. If I go to a place four times and they look at me like I’m a complete stranger, I’m probably going to cross it off my list. I think everybody’s really involved in the new thing, but I think that there is some comfort in familiarity.

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